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Sunday Worship 23 April | Road to Emmaus

Updated: Jan 18

Luke 24:13-35 | NIV
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

The road to Emmaus takes us back to Easter Sunday. It may feel like we’re stretching the story out a bit, but according to the liturgical calendar I grew up with, Easter is not just a day but a season, lasting right up until Pentecost. And the resurrection is one of the foundational claims of the Christian faith, so that seems an excellent reason to keep talking about it. Jesus seems to have made a number of post-resurrection appearances, but none of the gospels record all of them, so we have to do a bit of work to piece them together. This account seems to come after the women have met the angels, and after the disciples have seen the empty tomb, but before Mary Magdalen has reported her encounter with Jesus in the garden, and before Jesus has come to the disciples in the place where they are gathered. As far as these two on the road are concerned, Jesus is dead and his body has gone, but the resurrection is nothing more than a fevered imagination, or an idle tale as it has been described a few verses earlier.


So who are these two on the road to Emmaus? ‘Them’ in verse thirteen seems to refer back to ‘the apostles’ in verse ten, which suggests they were part of the community that gathered around Jesus and went on to become the church, although they were not part of the original twelve. We know that because they return to the twelve, or the eleven as they have become following the departure and death of Judas, and because one of them is named as Cleopas. We so easily confuse ‘apostles’ or ‘disciples’ with ‘the twelve’ that we sometimes forget that Jesus was pretty good at drawing crowds, and his group of followers soon grew beyond those he first called and commissioned. Luke 10 refers to Jesus sending out seventy two other disciples, and Luke 8 refers to many women who supported his ministry. In fact a number of scholars have suggested that the unnamed character in this story may have been a woman. Women have so often been anonymous throughout history, but there is an interesting possibility that we may be able to name her. John’s account of the crucifixion identifies one of the women at the cross as Mary the wife of Clopas, and if Clopas is Cleopas with a letter dropped or gained between gospels, then perhaps this second figure is Mary.


Or perhaps we are best not to know, because perhaps the anonymity of this second figure allows us to more easily step into their shoes, to encounter Christ through this story. Like all the post-resurrection stories, it is characterised by familiarity and mystery, a peculiar blend of the known and the unknown. Jesus is walking beside his disciples as he has done many times before, but they do not recognise him, just as Mary at first mistook him for the gardener. Perhaps he has changed in some way, perhaps grief has clouded their eyes, or perhaps they simply cannot see him where they do not expect him to be. Are there places we don’t expect to see God? Have we also missed or misunderstood encounters with the divine? Are we open to mystery as well as familiarity? Two years ago we worked through Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World together, a book focused on slowing down and paying attention so that we might learn to expect and encounter God everywhere. I think there was a lot of wisdom in there that would help us recognise our Emmaus moments, so if you missed any of that series or would like to revisit it, you can still find the podcast series we shared on our website.


But back to this morning’s story, as Jesus comes alongside these disciples on the road, the first thing that he asks is “What are you talking about?” I don’t think it would have taken divine omniscience for him to have had a pretty good sense of what they were discussing, as it is hard to imagine the disciples talking about anything else at this point. He is not asking because he doesn’t know, but because he wants to meet them precisely where they are. He wants to hear what they think about what has happened, how they are feeling after three days of grief and confusion, because it is in the conversation and the connection that things can be made sense of. Perhaps then this moment captures something of what it is to pray. God knows us and our lives before we have uttered a word, but still asks “What is going on?” so that we too may experience conversation and connection. Perhaps we might take a moment to answer that question right now, to tell God what is going on for us and to open ourselves to presence and response.


So the disciples tell Jesus all that has happened, and his response must have come as a surprise. “What fools! Don’t you understand?” I imagine they were struggling to know how to answer that when he started unpacking the scriptures, explaining all that the prophets had spoken about him. It would be fascinating to know exactly what he said, but it clearly captured the disciples’ interest, because when they reach the place where they are staying, they invite Jesus to stay with them. Perhaps they want to offer something back in hospitality, and perhaps they want to hear more. Does Jesus capture us in the same way? Do we want to give back and do we want to receive more? When the disciples finally realise who it is that they have been speaking with, they say that their hearts had burned within them as he opened the scriptures. There are two great phrases in there. That their hearts burned within them speaks of excitement, and reminds us that faith is emotional as well as intellectual. And the image of Jesus opening the scriptures gives a sense of examining and exploring, and reminds us that faith has room for discovery and curiosity.


One thing that I think is really interesting about this story is that the disciples recognise Christ in the moment that he offers the bread he has blessed and broken. Deeds not words finally bring about understanding, although perhaps without the words that preceded them, the deeds alone would not have been enough either. After all, revelation came to us in Christ as the “Word made flesh”, ideas put into action. There is an echo of the last supper in the breaking and sharing of bread, but it’s also worth remembering that the disciples will have shared many meals with Jesus, and so these were probably deeply familiar actions. They experience and recognise Christ in hospitality and generosity and fellowship, just as they have throughout his life and ministry. But then in the same moment that they recognise him, he disappears from their sight. The point of the resurrection was not that things would return to how they were, but that the disciples would find a new way to live in the light of it. Now they know that it is true and so Jesus leaves them to figure out what comes next, just as we too must work out how we live with what we have heard and seen and felt.


I also think there is something really interesting here and in communion about remembering Christ by dismembering bread. Something is created as something else is pulled apart. This week at house group we used some material from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, which imagined Christians as red dots in a society of grey dots, at times gathered together but at other times spread out, shading the dots around them with a little more colour. It was a striking image of the way we can strengthen one another as we gather and transform the world as we spread out. It came back to my mind as I reflected on this idea of something being created as something else is pulled apart. As the body of Christ we are dismembered each week, each going to our homes and communities, but it is only because of this that Christ can be remembered in those places. It is good for us to gather, as the disciples did when they broke bread with Jesus, but it is also good for us to scatter, as they later did when they ran to tell what they had seen.


This is such a rich story I encourage you to take some more time with it for yourself. You might like to practise a kind of lectio divina, reading the passage through then meditating on a word or phrase or image that has jumped out for you. Or you might like to look up some paintings based on the story and reflect on what those interpretations might offer. For now, I leave you with two questions to ponder. What would it mean for us to be the disciples, walking alongside Christ and learning from him? And what might it mean to be in the place of Christ, walking alongside others and encouraging them to learn? I also offer the prayer which John closed our house group session with, which may help us to reflect on those questions. Thank you, Father God, that we are your church, the body of Christ in the world. We’re grateful for our Sunday life and the worship that equips us for the days when we’re apart. Help us see afresh the possibilities of our everyday lives. May we know your presence with us in the pressures and the potential of the week. Help us to leave traces of grace wherever we are and whatever we do. Amen.

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